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The End of the Britains: Rome Abandons Britannia June 19, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

***Dedicated to Southern Man***

If you want to imagine Rome and Roman Britain in the last difficult decades of their existence you might do worse than think of an egg trapped in a vice. The Empire was surrounded by hostile barbarian peoples who envied its wealth and lived according to the logic and for the excitement of the raid. These different peoples pushed inwards across the borders and exerted ever more pressure: the handle of the vice was turning millimetre by millimetre… The Empire, of course, reacted. It spent more on defence and militarised government. Ancient liberties were taken away in an attempt to regulate its people better: for example, sons were to follow their fathers in their profession – the sons of legionaries were obliged to become legionaries. The economy was channeled to serve the army. Large numbers of barbarians from beyond the frontiers were recruited and used as auxiliary troops against other barbarian tribes in an attempt to stave off the enemy, sometimes being settled within Roman territory. Frontiers were fortified: defensive lines were built, spies were sent into non-Roman lands, cities had large walls put up around them even in relatively safe areas of the Empire. And, to an extent, these attempts, while making the Empire a less pleasant place, worked. The Empire became stronger in the fourth century. But it was a brittle strength and all the time the handle of the vice was turning… It was only a matter of time before the first crack appeared on the shell of the egg.

With the benefit of hindsight we can say that first crack appeared on the 31st December 406.  It was not a brilliant speech by an inspired chieftain or a stupid mistake on the part of a Roman general that started the invasion but a cold snap. As temperatures across northern Europe plummeted the Rhine, the frontier between the Germanic tribes and the Empire froze. Communication between the barbarian and Roman world was kept up by a series of defended bridges that regulated movement between the two regions. On several occasions these bridges had saved Rome: four hundred years before, after three legions had been annihilated in an ill-advised march through the German forests under a certain Varus, a few hundred legionaries had held them against vastly superior numbers of tribesmen and so saved the Empire. But now the ice had made the river into an extension of the land and  the bridges no longer mattered. That very night Germanic warbands went whooping into the Roman province, bypassing the bridges that were to defend Gaul. Though neither the Roman legionaries watching in horror, the civilian population running for protection, nor the jubilant Germanic warriors could have possibly realised it a new era was dawning.

Rome had faced many disasters in the twelve hundred years since the city on the Tiber had been founded. There had been attacks on Rome itself. There had been legions burnt like dry grass in deserts and forests, not least Varus’ disastrous patrol in Germany mentioned above: disasters from which almost no survivors returned and that had imperiled the Empire. There had been economic woes: famine, hyperinflation and devaluation. On occasion provinces had been lost to the Emperor for months at a time. There had been  instability and civil war: with, for example, twenty five emperors in fifty years in the late third century, only two of those twenty five dying a natural death. And the chances are that in normal circumstances Rome could have also escaped from the disaster on the Rhine as it had escaped from previous disasters, through its remarkable ability to adapt. The barbarians would have raided, perhaps even invaded: but eventually they would have been herded back to their side of the river and the task of rebuilding would have begun. But what, instead, gave this incursion the potential to destroy the Empire was that it coincided with another disaster: a second crack that started running across the surface of the egg. And that second disaster took place in Britain.

As a particularly vulnerable province Britain had always needed a large garrison. Indeed, about an eighth of all Roman troops were to be found in the island. This though created problems of its own for such concentrations of troops were a threat as much as a defence. Indeed, if the garrison became unhappy and decided to rebel then it could unseat an emperor or deprive Rome of access to the province for years: especially when, as was the case with Britain, efficient Roman defences rendered an invasion so difficult. This combination of factors made the soldiers based in Britain a particularly bad-tempered lot: and the garrison frequently revolted. So Constantine the Great, the Emperor who had converted the Empire to Christianity, had started his successful bid for power in Britain by encouraging the legions there to rise in his favour. The island had once been cut off from the rest of the Empire for the best part of twenty years by one seemingly endless revolt in the third century. And so frequent were such rebellions of the British-based soldiery that one late antique writer said that the island was ‘fertile in tyrants’ nodding to the many opportunists, discontents and troublemakers that made their name in the forts and legionary camps there.

The revolt that broke out in 407 and that would cement the fate of the Empire began modestly enough. We learn that in that year the British garrisons decided to disobey orders over an unreported slight and made a centurion named Marcus their leader. So far the revolt had followed a normal enough path. But then the garrisons deviated from normality: killing Marcus and replacing him with a civilian, a city-councillor named Gratian. This was a peculiar act as there is no other rebellion of the Roman Army in history where a civilian leader was co-opted in this way: are we to understand that the army wanted the support of the British-Celtic civilian population? The question is worth asking but hardly worth answering as Gratian did not last long either. In the space of a month he was killed and was replaced by a certain Constantine. Again it must be stressed that we do not know what caused the anger of the British garrison, but this pattern of putsch on putsch suggests that the garrison in Britain had some serious grievances.  Constantine, in any case, proved an altogether more active leader than his two predecessors and started to gather the legionaries based in Britain for an attack on the continent with the intention of unseating the undeserving emperor of the day, Honorius and restoring order in Gaul where the barbarians were still causing confusion, and in Spain that had now too been overrun.

Rome had seen the British garrison revolt, as we have noted, on many occasions. It could in normal circumstances have survived this: certainly, it had survived such traumas many times in the past. It may even have managed to survive the combined inconvenience of the punctured Rhine Frontier and the uncooperative island defences. But what the doddery Roman Empire could not possibly resist was the confusion as these two sources of anarchy collided. Yet this was precisely what Constantine’s tactics involved: and in 409, two years after the incursion and the revolt, Constantine set off towards the Continent so sealing the fate of the Empire.

The events of the next three years must have confused even interested contemporaries: they bewilder those historians today who have tried to understand them. But reduced to their absolutely bare essentials they were as follows. Constantine’s deputy, a certain Gerontius, passed into Spain with his army and revolted against Constantine and Honorius, complicating a war that would now include numerous Germanic warbands and three separate Roman armies. Honorius then slowly reasserted his authority and Constantine and Gerontius were both defeated: Constantine under siege and, realising that he had lost, had himself tonsured as a monk to avoid execution; a cute trick but one that did not work.  Then Honorius had to try and settle the barbarian question that he did by allowing some of the invading warbands to take land within his territory. Rome would limp on for another two generations yet, slowly losing its dignity and provinces in a geopolitical striptease that was to change the lives of millions. But the ‘endgame’ began with those chaotic few years in the early fifth century when ice on a river in Germany and an unhappy army in Britain had doomed an Empire. And it would be undefended Britain that would feel the consequences the quickest.

Constantine left Britain in 409 and as he marched across the continent the spotlight of history shifted with him. But in the island history did not end in that year. Far from it. History, if anything, speeded up uncomfortably. The rebellion’s leader by taking a large part of the British garrison to the continent had left the island undefended; and from across the Irish Sea, the North Sea and Hadrian’s Wall the three enemies of Britannia, the Picts, the Gaels and the Saxons caught the first whiff of an easy kill. Constantine’s campaigns distract contemporary commentators, but we can glean references to barbarian attacks on Britain. One suggests that parts of the island were completely dominated, perhaps conquered by the enemy. Another talks in detail of the Scotti and the Picts, who we are told were keener to cover their faces with beards than their privates with clothes. And, with the benefit of hindsight, we can say that many of these parts of Britain had now reached the point of no return. They would never become British-Celtic again – the tectonic plates of British history had started to shift in the favour of one of these enemies, the Saxons, the ancestors of the English.

Certainly, the earliest and the most significant proofs of the wars for Britain are the Anglo-Saxon finds from Britain that date to these years: though it is possible that some of these finds belonged to Germanic barbarians employed by the British Celts for their own protection – a series of dragon-belt-buckles dug up across the south of England are especially interesting here. A striking, albeit more transient, change that belongs too to this general period is Irish settlement in Wales and perhaps Cornwall and Cheshire. In fact, much of what is modern Welsh-speaking Wales was taken over by Irish tribes and some of the region’s place-names date back to these settlers: for example, the Lleyn Peninsula is ‘the Peninsula of the Men of Leinster [south-eastern Ireland]’. Then there are also hints of Pictish success. Not only was there gold and silver buried to the north of the Humber by fleeing British-Celtic families, hoards that were poignantly never recovered. There is also almost animated archaeological evidence, including a gory frieze in the soil in the County Durham.  There a Roman signal station was overrun, by a warband. One man was stabbed in the back and fell over an open fire. Another, perhaps one of the raiders, was attacked by a dog that leapt at his throat ending his life – the dog was also slain and lay for the best part of the next fifteen hundred years on top of its final kill.  Then two other bodies were left in the surroundings. The fort was evidently not employed again after this final melee and no trouble was taken to bury the dead.

However, into this chaotic situation worse news was to come. Honorius was slowly clawing back control over his Continental provinces, but Roman resources were stretched to their limit by the civil war that was still in course. And, at this time, the Emperor made a decision that was to end any hope for the British Celts: he renounced control over Britain. It was a ruthless but not a stupid decision. Britain was, as we have seen, a province that needed special military support and that often rebelled. True, it did provide some goods to the Empire: hunting dogs, pearls interestingly, woollen coats, tin and lead. But these goods very likely did not cover the military expense. Indeed, even three hundred years before the Emperor Nero had reflected on the worthlessness of Britannia, noting that the minerals and valuables extracted from its shores hardly justified the strain on his treasury.  At that date reasons of Imperial prestige had meant that Britain was kept in the Imperial fold: but in an age when the whole Empire was imploding such considerations were senseless. Honorius may have considered too that Britain had been Constantine’s base, and there was perhaps a certain understandable pleasure, a little schaudenfraude in announcing that the island was no longer of interest to the Emperor, that it was to be thrown to barbarian wolves.

It has sometimes been suggested that later Roman rulers changed their mind and tried to retake Britain. But there is no evidence for this: Roman power was probably no longer up to a seaborne operation by 410 and it was certainly past it a generation after that date. Instead, in the disasters that followed we know only that at one point the British Celts tried to persuade the Romans to return, but that the Romans refused: the earliest surviving British poem is a couplet in Latin, sent by the British Celts to the Romans in Gaul – ‘the barbarians push us to the sea, the sea pushes us to the land, between these two extremes, we are either drowned or slaughtered’. In fact, the only subsequent Roman interest in Britain is not really Roman at all. As the Empire collapses in the fifth century the eastern rump manages to preserve its frontiers and reinvents itself as the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines considered themselves the successors of Rome and though Greek-speaking kept on the Latin dream until their capital, Constantinople, was overrun by the Turks in 1453, on the very cusp of the modern age. In a curious sixth-century episode, Byzantine armies campaigning in barbarian-dominated Italy suggested to one barbarian king that he swap Sicily for distant Britain, as if the title deeds to Britannia were still theirs to give or take: not surprisingly they were turned down. The truth is that bar this later and selfish display of interest Honorius’ decision was final. Britain had been given up by Rome. No saving legions would come to the island as had happened at the time of the Barbarians’ Conspiracy a generation before. The British Celts, a people with no experience in fighting and pitifully little in government, were on their own.

The consequences of barbarian invasions and Imperial disregard can be traced in the British soil. If you go to a Roman site and dig down through the centuries and then look at a cross-section of earth the transformation is striking and permanent. From the third and fourth century there are pottery fragments, tile, bricks, occasional pieces of glass, nails and coins. In the period following on there is almost nothing – rotted wood at best. The difference signals the complete collapse of the Roman Age economy in Britain and, indeed, the end of Roman civilisation there. Particles of sand had leaked into the delicate machinery of Romano-British existence and the whole series of cogs and wheels that made that existence possible ground quickly to a halt. Long-distance travel along undefended roads became impossible or foolhardy. British factories and workshops, which had produced various goods and traded not only within Britain but also with the rest of the Empire, disappeared as they could no longer sell their products. Cities, likewise suffered, food was no longer getting through, and started to empty. Coin was no longer minted and barter replaced the moneyed-economy. Pottery, one of the staples of life, stopped being made, or was made badly by local potters on crude wheels. The ability to repair Roman works of engineering failed almost immediately: we have only one piece of evidence for civic engineering in Britain after the collapse – a single drainpipe laid at St Albans. And, in no longer using coins, Roman building techniques, pottery or congregating in cities the British Celts become extremely difficult to find anywhere in the archaeological record. It is as if a whole civilisation had suddenly put on a ring of invisibility.

This lack of archaeological clues would not matter if only the British Celts had remained in the historical record. But they did not: this was, after all, the start of what some historians call the Dark Ages, for which very few texts survive. This does not mean, of course, that the British Celts failed to write about what happened in the following years: on the contrary we know that they did – the couplet quoted above is an example. It means though that what was written did not, for the most part, survive: one of the very few pieces of writing to make it through to us speaks of burning libraries from which British-Celtic chronicles, letters and histories doubtless passed to the greater libraries of eternity. Nor did writers on the continent, who could have given valuable information, take much interest in Britain: by this time they had their own woes and Britannia and its misfortunes were far away. There are occasional references to barbarian-inspired disasters in the island. But it is almost as if Britannia had slipped bounds and had drifted from the rest of Europe: drifted so far, indeed, that knowledge about a land that had once been an integral part of the Roman world started to suffer. So one Greek historian, writing a century later, gets so confused that he states that there are two islands named Britain in the Atlantic and that one is divided by a wall beyond which no human can live because of the poisonous airs there – an early and uncharitable description of what was to become Scotland.

The very little information that seeps through to the modern age is contradictory and unreliable. Was there, for example, a national British-Celtic leader named Vortigern who ruled Britain with a council? Or did the province break up into separate states defending themselves from their multiple foes? Did the British Celts have some surprising early victories against the invaders?  Or were their defeats sudden and irreversible? Did the Anglo-Saxons who arrive on the shores of Britain come as enemies? Or is it possible that some were recruited as mercenaries to fight the Picts and Scotti, only later turning against the weak British-Celts and asking to be paid in land? Then, finally, the question that attracts most interest for this period was this the century when a British-Celtic hero, Arthur rode out to defend the British Celts against their enemies? These questions are all interesting and can be debated endlessly, but without any hope of certainty. All that we can say with confidence is that those years were extremely unpleasant for the British-Celtic successors of Rome, trapped under the tyranny of foreign, barbarian rulers in their own island.

Other thoughts on the death of Britannia? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com